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Sugar Beet Harvest

Written by Suzanne & Phil
Sunday, 29 March 2009

Express Professional ServicesBeet Field

American Crystal Company

Sugar Beet Harvest

Crookston, Minnesota

September - October 2008

Who: American Crystal Company

What: Express Professional Services is a temp agency who helps to place folks for sugar beet harvesting jobs for the American Crystal Sugar Company. Sugar beets are what they sound like - beets that are refined into sugar. Sugar beet sugar is found in many products and used by such companies as Coca-Cola and Hershey’s. Yum yum.

Where: Sugar beet piler sites are located in various locations through Minnesota and North Dakota. There are probably other locations, but we just heard about the ones in the Red River Valley.

When: Harvest starts in early October. We were asked to be in Minnesota in very late September (I think we showed up around the 22nd). If the weather cooperates, you can be done in ten days. However, since the farms cannot operate in too hot or too cold temperatures, or if it's raining too hard, the harvest can be delayed. We were in Minnesota for about three weeks, but worked only ten of those, because of inclement weather.

Why: You're not actually picking the beets. Farm equipment and truckers take care of that end. You're placed at piler locations. A piler is a big piece of machinery that conveys the beets up a big arm-like contraption, cleans them a bit and shoots them into a big pile of beets that sit and freeze over the winter.  The jobs you can get are sample taker, helper, piler operator or scale-house operator. If you have experience, you could be a bobcat operator or even a site foreman, but we don't know much about those jobs. If you're interested in reading more about each job, see the Our Experience section below.

What we liked

  • our coworkers, Jorge, Berta and Martin
  • free place to stay
  • we got to cross harvest off our list

What we didn't like

  • we were told our RV park was full hookup. When we got there, we found out that it was almost no hookup. We had 15 amps of power, no sewer and no water. There also weren't enough real spots to park in, so we ended up in the grass that turned into a mud hole when it rained (which was most of the time we were there)
  • we worked overnights when the temperatures dipped down into the 20s. That plus rain equals COLD.
  • this branch of Express was not well organized
  • we were forced to get paid via a payment card, much like a credit card, that had fees and other unpleasantness associated with it
  • lack of things to do in Crookston in our time off, which we had a lot of due to the bad weather
  • the bad weather
  • the library wouldn't give me a library card

Our Experience

Before I start, I should say that our friend from Skagway, Bob, who had done this job the year before, told us not to. He wouldn't really tell us what he did exactly, though, so we had to find out for ourselves.

beet pilerMy job title was Sample Taker. If you're a sample taker, you stand at the base of the piler and direct trucks into the correct place where they dump their beets into a big bin. Trucks can go to either side of the piler and, when we worked, there was one couple on one side and me and Phil on the other side. When the trucks are in place, one of the sample takers goes up to the driver and gets the slip of paper that has the truck info on it. On that slip, the sample taker writes the piler number down and hands it back to the driver to give to the scale-house operator when he/she leaves. That's when you find out if you need to take a sample of that truck's beets or not. (It's a random process, so even though you're called a sample taker, you won't be taking a sample of every truck's beets.)

If it happens to be a sample truck, the driver will have another bar-coded slip to give you that you take with you to put on the sample sack. You place the sack over a shoot, push a button when a light tells you to, and beets come flying down the shoot into the sample bag. While one person is doing all that, the other person is keeping an eye on the truck and directing the truck to receive a load of dirt (when the beets are cleaned, the dirt gets shaken off and set aside for the driver to take back to the farm with them). And it's on to the next truck. If there's down time between trucks, you keep busy by sweeping the area and keeping it clean of mud, dirt and beets. Also, some truck drivers aren't too good at taking direction and spill beets outside of the bin. When that happens, you have to shovel all those beets into the bin where they belong. And so on and so on for 12 hours.

Phil was a Helper. The helper does all the same stuff as the sample taker, but has the added responsibility of relieving the piler operator when needed for bathroom breaks and lunch breaks. That person has a bit more training to learn how to operate the million-dollar piece of equipment, but not enough to make one entirely comfortable. It's mostly hands-on experience. Phil had to make sure the beets were shot off the conveyor and on to the pile in a consistent manner, and had to make sure that he didn't pile up the beets too high in one spot. If he did so, he could get the arm stuck in the beets which would halt operation at best and cause the arm to fall off entirely at worst. Because it had extra responsibility, Phil got paid a wee bit more than I did.

Sue BeetsI'm not going to sugar coat it here (ha ha). I seriously came close to being driven over the edge with this job. It probably didn’t help that we were going to see my family for the first time in three years after the job was done, but homesickness was not the only problem.

Things got off to a bad start when the branch of Express who ran this turned out to be less organized than you would expect. They had no records of any workampers who signed up online (which was all of us) and we all had to redo the paperwork. Then it was announced that no one was guaranteed a job, which infuriated all of us who had driven hundreds or thousands of miles for a job we had been told over the phone and through email that we were hired for. And there was no direct deposit or check options for getting paid. You had to get paid on a Global Cash Card. And if you did not follow the fine print, you could end up paying them more in fees than you made that pay period.

We ended up on the overnight shift because we were led to believe that overnights would work more than the day shift because you can’t pick beets when it is too hot. On the contrary. If a shift was cut short or canceled, it was the overnights. I understand the farms couldn't pick the beets in the rain because the farm trucks would get bogged down in the mud, but sometimes it wasn't even raining and the farms would just decide not to harvest at night. That sucked because a big reason to do this job is to get paid the overtime, and since our shifts were always being cut short, we didn't make the money we could have.

Another bad thing about the night shift was that it got darn cold. There's nothing worse than standing around for hours in the freezing cold. Ok, yes there is. Cleaning mud out of the piler when it's cold and raining. We actually did that on more than one night. No farms were picking because of the rain, but if we wanted to be paid, the only job the foreman came up with was cleaning the piler.

The worst part of our experience was actually not working. We were told we would be working for ten days. If the weather would have cooperating, that would have been great. But it didn't, and we had days in a row with no work. But we could be called back at any time, so our sleep schedule was erratic. We tried to keep up with the vampire schedule even when we weren't working, but that was tough to do, especially with two pugs and two cats who don't care that you're trying to sleep during the day.

So ten days turned into three weeks, and we had places to be. Like I said, I hadn't been home to Pennsylvania in three years, and we had plans to go there after the harvest. There were times we seriously considered just leaving, but we had never walked out on a job commitment in our lives.

Another not-so-great part of it all was the RV facilities. We were staying at a city park, which was nice enough for what it was, but it was not equipped for long-term stays. The worst part about that was we were told when we called about the job that we would have full hookups. We get there and there wasn't even a real place for us, or the six RVs that pulled in after us to park because it was overbooked. We wound up backing in next to a fellow (who ended up being our foreman) who helped us get our water tank filled. He was a great help in fixing up our rig for some long term boondocking. Since there were no water hookups whatsoever in this park we all hooked up various hoses from the shower house and ran them down the hill to a general area where people could splice in and fill up their rigs.

Since we didn't have a real space, our electricity sucked because we were piggybacking on our neighbor’s box. He had the 30 amps for his rig, and we were plugged into the little 15 amp in his box. That meant we couldn't run more than one appliance at a time, and when yet another RVer pulled in beside us and plugged into the other 15 amp plug, then we couldn't do anything. Luckily, before we left, someone left early from a real spot, so when we could slog out of the mud hole, we moved. But that only helped with the electricity. The sewer was a whole other bag of fun. Some dude came around with this pickup and took care of that. I'm glad there was someone who came around, but he was gross. Phil saw him emptying people's sewer tanks with no gloves and no regard for getting crap all over his hands. Can you imagine that guy's steering wheel? Yeeck.

If you want to learn more about this experience, please read our blog entries from the end of September through October 2008.